The Dictionary.com Word Of The Year For 2020 Is …

pandemic: life upended, language transformed

2020 has been, well, a lot.

At Dictionary.com, the task of choosing a single word to sum up 2020—a year roiled by a public health crisis, an economic downturn, racial injustice, climate disaster, political division, and rampant disinformation—was a challenging and humbling one.

But at the same time, our choice was overwhelmingly clear. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended—and our language so rapidly transformed—in this unprecedented year.

That word is pandemic, our 2020 Word of the Year.

What word sums up 2020 for you? Enter our contest to submit your choice!

How pandemic defined 2020

As most of us now know painfully well, a pandemic is defined as “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” And yet, the loss of life and livelihood caused by the COVID-19 pandemic defies definition.

With over 60 million confirmed cases, the pandemic has claimed over one million lives across the globe and is still rising to new peaks. The pandemic has wreaked social and economic disruption on a historic scale and scope, globally impacting every sector of society—not to mention its emotional and psychological toll. All other events for most of 2020, from the protests for racial justice to a heated presidential election, were shaped by the pandemic. Despite its hardships, the pandemic inspired the best of our humanity: resilience and resourcefulness in the face of struggle. And we thought 2019 was an existential year …

This upheaval was reflected in our language, notably in the word pandemic itself. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the first caused by a coronavirus. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom observed of this momentous announcement.

That day, when COVID-19 had then only taken 4,291 lives around the world, searches for pandemic skyrocketed 13,575% on Dictionary.com compared to 2019. Pandemic joined a cluster of other terms that users searched in massive numbers, whether to learn an unfamiliar word used during a government briefing or to process the swirl of media headlines: asymptomatic, CDC, coronavirus, furlough, nonessential, quarantine, and sanitizer, to spotlight a few.

But of all these many queries, search volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. Because of its ubiquity as the defining context of 2020, it remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year since.

At the start of 2020, it was unthinkable that parents would need to have a serious conversation about the word pandemic—a word which may have previously felt like a term from the history books—to their children around the dinner table. It was unfathomable that, by the year’s end, the word pandemic would become part of our everyday speech to the point of overfamiliarity, even fatigue.

How rare it is for the origin of a word—with pandemic ultimately coming from the Greek pân, “all,” and dêmos, “people”—to prove so literal. Without a doubt, the pandemic affected all of us, all over the world, in nearly all aspects of our lives.

How pandemic changed the dictionary

The pandemic defined 2020, and it will define the years to come. It is a consequential word for a consequential year.

As the pandemic upended life in 2020, it also dramatically reshaped our language, requiring a whole new vocabulary for talking about our new reality. It defined much of the work we did at Dictionary.com this year in order to meet the urgent need for information and explanation amid a fast-changing crisis.

In a period of just a few weeks in the spring, the pandemic introduced a host of new and newly prominent words that, normally, only public health professionals knew and used. Specialized lingo, spanning topics from epidemiology to social behavior, formed a shared—and ever-expanding—glossary for daily life. Besides more obvious items like COVID-19 and coronavirus, highlights include:

 

Supported by efforts of our editors to bring clarity and context to these terms and trends in articles and other content, our lexicographers updated our dictionary—twice this year—to document this extensive language change. We cannot overstate how rare it is for so many entries, so abruptly, to be added to the dictionary.

The resilience and resourcefulness people confronted the pandemic with also manifested itself in tremendous linguistic creativity. Throughout 2020, our team has been tracking a growing body of so-called coronacoinages that have given expression—and have offered some relief from tragedy, some connection in isolation—to the lived experience of a surreal year. In addition to shortened forms like rona and quar, we saw a slew of puns, blends, novel expressions, and other new words for a new normal. Corona (from coronavirus) and Zoom (from a leading video communication platform) were especially productive in forming neologisms.

 

This outbreak of new language—matched by a surge of searches for these terms on site—is unlike anything we’ve ever seen at Dictionary.com. It takes an event on the order of a pandemic to generate such innovation. And on its own, this evolving vernacular serves as a striking timeline of life under COVID-19.

WATCH: Why Dictionary.com Chose This Word To Describe 2020

Pandemic: the defining context for 2020

While pandemic rose to the top of the many words that drove both the search and lexicographical activity on Dictionary.com this year, 2020 barraged us, month after month, with unprecedented occurrences. The experience of such a welter of uncertainty and change—even as many of us were hunkered down at home—was jolting and disorienting.

President Donald Trump was acquitted of impeachment charges. After the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter sparked a powerful reckoning with racism. Record wildfires ravaged the West Coast along with other extreme climate episodes. Americans voted, early and by mail like never before, in an impassioned presidential election.

This year was a lot to handle, and as our data shows, our users, in one form or another, tried to do so by looking up the terms surrounding these major events on our site in significant numbers.

Still, all of this took place in the context of—on account of, in spite of, in a now faraway-seeming world prior to—the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from news headlines to advertisements to casual speech registered the totality of the pandemic by framing all of the events in terms of before, during, amid, and since the pandemic. We applied pandemic as a modifier in novel ways: pandemic teaching, pandemic fashion, pandemic baking, or pandemic depression, for instance, characterize how these activities altered during life in the time of COVID-19.

Year in Review: 2020 Trends By Month

To acknowledge the multitude of other terms that directed our users’ interests and our work as a dictionary, we think it’s worth reviewing notable words that spiked or spoke to the unrest and transformation of this indelible year. But in revisiting all these terms, it’s unmistakable that the COVID-19 pandemic was the turning point and throughline for all the events of the entire year.

January

pettifogging

See definition

With such a whirlwind of news in 2020, it’s easy to forget that the year opened with a historic episode all its own: the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. more

February

acquit

See definition

The impeachment trial of President Trump continued to top trends in February. On February 5, the same day a cruise ship quarantined off Japan in one of the then-largest outbreaks outside China, the Senate voted along party lines to acquit Trump of the charges against him. more

March

quarantine

See definition

In March, the enormity of the coronavirus became real. The COVID-19 epidemic precipitated into a true pandemic. Schools, business, cities, even entire countries locked down. Everyday life was forced into quarantine.
more

April

social distancing

See definition

No other term quite so specifically captures how the pandemic transformed life and language in 2020 than social distancing.
more

May

conspiracy theory

See definition

In a year when facts about COVID-19 had life-and-death consequences, 2020 also saw the troubling spread of conspiracy theories—including from the highest office in the land. That we frame such misinformation and disinformation in viral metaphors, like infodemic, has never been more apt and resonant.
more

June

defund

See definition

The tragic death of George Floyd on May 25 marked another inflection point in 2020. By June, for millions of people across the globe, the urgent need for change transcended the risks of mass gatherings during a pandemic—a need perhaps intensified by the hardships of COVID-19, which have disproportionately hurt people of color. Demonstrators took their face masks to the streets around the world to protest against racism and police brutality against Black people.
more

July

Karen

See definition

In 2020, the slang insult Karen went from an internet meme to a cultural touchstone of the year. By July, Karen had logged over two million views on our site following a series of viral videos showing white women, popularly labeled Karens, flouting pandemic safety regulations or calling the police on Black people.
more

August

doomscrolling

See definition

One of the most relatable experiences in 2020 established its popular name this year: doomscrolling, a term popularized by journalist Karen Ho for the act of compulsively checking social media for more bad news.
more

September

absentee vote

See definition

The 2020 presidential election didn’t just unfold during the pandemic. The pandemic also shook up the mechanics of democracy, restructuring campaigns, conventions, debates, and voting.
more

October

superspreader

See definition

In October, COVID-19 cases hit new highs in the U.S. as the country headed into what many are calling the long, pandemic winter. And major European countries imposed new lockdowns as they confronted a second wave.
more

November

unprecedented

See definition

Unprecedented times, unprecedented circumstances, unprecedented challenges—in 2020, there’s no question the word unprecedented saw unprecedented use. Far and away, this adjective, meaning “never before known or experienced,” burgeoned in common parlance to characterize the many extraordinary events of the year.
more

December

People's Choice

We can’t predict what will unfold next in this unprecedented year, so we want to hear from you. We’ve chosen pandemic as our Word of the Year. What word would you choose to sum up 2020? Submit your choice here—and you may just get in “the last word” on this tumultuous year in life and language.

Past Dictionary.com Words of the Year

existential

2019

misinformation

2018

complicit

2017

xenophobia

2016

identity

2015

exposure

2014

privacy

2013

bluster

2012

tergiversate

2011

change

2010

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